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Meditation: Not Just for Yogis

It's being practiced in classrooms and boardrooms. Here's why you might want to try this stress-relief technique yourself.

YOU EXPECT A MEDITATION TEACHER'S VOICE to be calm and soothing, and Jim Malloy of the World Wide Online Meditation Center doesn't disappoint. He sounds reassuring, peaceful—and, dare I say it?— enlightened. For good reason: Malloy first discovered meditation just out of high school, and he's been teaching it for 33 years now. What he says about it sounds familiar and yet astonishing: Meditation improves heart health and brain functions, makes meditators feel better, and helps them maintain their mental clarity and emotional balance through the day.

According to a 1983 Harvard study of Transcendental Meditation, it increases longevity; cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral flexibility; and learning ability in older adults. In a recent study, University of Kentucky researchers tested a group of students before and after 40 minutes of meditation, napping, exercise, or consuming caffeine. The researchers found that the subjects had improved reaction time after meditating. In addition, those who had gone without sleep the prior evening and then meditated in the morning performed better than others who also hadn't slept but skipped the meditation.

Meditation can improve physical health, too. “It can boost your immune system, improving influenza immunity and response to the [flu] vaccine,” says Michael R. Irwin, MD, a professor at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Moving meditation can boost shingles immunity.”

The Meditating Brain. So how does it work? According to Irwin, when you're excited or upset you experience an increase in the outflow from the sympathetic nervous system, elevating your blood pressure and heart rate. Meditation produces a counteracting increase in the outflow of the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart, constricts the pupils, and dilates blood vessels. “Chanting a mantra alters brain waves because you're focusing on the same sound,” he continues. “Like when you sing 'Ave Maria.' It regulates the breathing and increases the parasympathetic outflow from the brain.”

Meditation doesn't take special equipment. Unless a mantra counts. “Traditionally in Hindu culture the mantra was passed on from guru to disciple,” Malloy says. But he adds that anything will do in a pinch: concentrating on your breath while saying “Om,” or counting from 1 to 10 over and over. “A mantra is not confined to Hinduism. The Rosary is a mantra; ‘Amen,’ that's a mantra.” And, apparently, so is ‘Ave Maria.’

Perfect Focus Not Required. After settling on a mantra, sit down and close your eyes. Gently focus your attention on the mantra, your breath. If your attention wanders, to bills, changing your car's oil, or Dancing with the Stars, just gently bring it back; a wandering mind is a natural part of meditation. “People have misconceptions,” says Malloy. “They think you have to turn off your mind, make it blank. Trying to force your mind to become blank is like trying to force yourself to go to sleep.” But something will happen: Relaxation. Lower blood pressure. Boosted immune system. Malloy recommends meditating for a mere 10 minutes a day. After a month, he says, increase it to 20 minutes, if you feel like it. You'll begin to reap the benefits right away.

Phil Scott is a regular contributor to NRTA Live & Learn. He is the author of Hemingway's Hurricane. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Winter 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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